By Thomas Gerbasi, photo by Damien Acevedo
There is no topic off limits when talking to Bernard Hopkins. So while other athletes who are getting up in years may get offended when the taboo topic of age comes up, “The Executioner” is more than willing to not only talk about – but celebrate – being 48 years old in a young man’s sport.
“As people keep saying 48, 48, 48, I want them to keep mentioning that because someone across the world is gonna say ‘wow, this man is 48 years old and he’s doing this and he’s winning. I’m inspired.’”
He’s right. There are plenty of people (and you can count me in that group of 40-somethings) that look at what Hopkins has done since turning the Big 4-0 and simply smile. It’s not an ear-to-ear grin like when George Foreman shocked Michael Moorer to win the heavyweight title in 1994, but it’s a sneaky, sly grin, one that matches the style of Hopkins during the years in which he was supposed to be enjoying the fruits of a 20 successful defense reign atop the middleweight division.
But who knew that after back-to-back losses to Jermain Taylor, he was just getting started. In the process he took the time when boxers’ legacies get destroyed or at least tarnished, and he made his even greater. And he knows it.
“I’m doing something that ain’t supposed to be done,” said Hopkins. “Now it becomes something different, and that’s what I am: different. That’s strange to people that are ordinary. Everybody looks at me different and thinks that it’s a problem because they are ordinary. And that word just means that there are a lot of you.”
No one will dispute that there is only one Bernard Hopkins. But as his Saturday fight with IBF light heavyweight champion Tavoris Cloud approaches, it’s that extraordinary career and persona that is fueling Florida’s Cloud.
"Fighting a fighter like Bernard Hopkins, who's supposed to be a legend, puts me in a different frame of mind,” he said during a media event this week. “It puts me on my toes.”
It’s also the ticket from relative obscurity to the big time if Cloud doesn’t just win, but wins emphatically; so emphatically that Hopkins will be either prompted or forced into retirement. Then again, everyone Hopkins has stepped between the ropes with since the two Taylor fights in 2005 has felt the same thing. This was the name they needed to stamp their own name into the consciousness of people outside the boxing world.
Antonio Tarver. Winky Wright. Joe Calzaghe. Kelly Pavlik. Jean Pascal. Chad Dawson.
Of that group, only Calzaghe and Dawson succeeded in pinning a loss on Hopkins’ 52-6-2 (32 KOs) 2 NC record, with Calzaghe walking off into retirement one win later, and Dawson unable to parlay his victory into anything resembling superstardom. What it ultimately came down to was that they were all unable to do what they said they would: push the pace, force him to feel every year of being over 40, and close the show with a knockout.
Of course, the 31-year-old Cloud expects to succeed where others have failed, with his 79% knockout rate as his primary weapon.
“You have to go in there and hit him,” said the 175-pound titleholder, who has defended the belt four times since winning the vacant crown against Clinton Woods in 2009. “Show him that his tactics don't work. Bernard Hopkins is a fighter that you have to get straight to the point with. You can't lollygag and bulls**t because that's his game. Being serious and doing my job throwing punches in the ring, that's my game. I don't come to put on a show for the people. I come to give the people a fight and give them their money's worth; give them real entertainment.”
For Hopkins, it’s not about real entertainment; it’s about getting the win, and while he hasn’t had his hand raised since his 2011 victory over Pascal in their Montreal rematch, he says that he’s coming into the bout “the healthiest I’ve been,” something he owes to an extended stay in Miami last summer in which he said he was able to let the shoulder injured in the first Dawson fight to heal completely. After that, it was back to work, and when a call out of Cloud on Twitter worked, he had an opponent for a fight that he hopes will allow him to break his own record as the oldest world champion in boxing history. Cloud has no intention of being boxing’s version of (pardon the Brooklyn reference) Ralph Branca.
“I'm ready,” he said. “I feel like I can't be beat. You have to feel like that being a fighter. I just feel like this is a bigger type of energy. I feel like I've beaten so many odds. I feel kind of invincible.”
It’s talk Hopkins has heard before, probably more times than he can remember (and no, that’s not an old age joke). So what does he bring to Barclays Center this weekend that Cloud hasn’t seen before?
“25 years of experience, and he never seen a person that might be the same age as his mother and father that’s in better shape,” he said. “I believe he respects me; he’s not stupid. But what 31-year-old guy is gonna tell himself that a 48-year-old guy is gonna compete with him when he looks at uncles who got waistlines that are over 55 inches. That’s just young thinking.”
He pauses before continuing.
“A lot of guys that were undefeated, that were prospects, I took a lot of money out of their bank accounts.”